What are you doing now: Singer-Young Tony Bennett grew up listening to Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Joe Venuti. By age 10 he was already singing, performing at the opening of the Triborough Bridge.
Thus began the unprecedented career of Tony Bennett, with its many twists and turns - starting with an equally impressive record of military service.
Tony Bennett, then Anthony Benedetto, was drafted into the United States Army in November 1944 during the final stages of World War II. After basic training at Fort Dix and Fort Robinson, Benedetto became an infantry rifleman. In January 1945 he was assigned as a replacement infantryman to 255th Infantry Regiment of the 63rd Infantry Division, a unit filling in after the Battle of the Bulge. He moved across France and into Germany, and in March 1945, he joined the front line.
As the German Army was pushed back into their homeland, Benedetto and his company experienced bitter winter fighting. At the end of March they crossed the Rhine and engaged with German soldiers; during the first week of April they crossed the Kocher and by the end of the month reached the Danube. Benedetto narrowly escaped death several times. His combat experience made him a patriot and a pacifist. Benedetto took part in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, where American prisoners of war from the 63rd Division were also freed.
Benedetto stayed in Germany as part of the occupying force, assigned to an informal Special Services band unit that entertained nearby American forces. His dining with a black friend from high school, at a time when the Army was still segregated, led to his demotion and reassignment to Graves Registration duties. Subsequently, he sang with the Army military band under the stage name Joe Bari, and played with many musicians who went on to have post-war music careers.
Upon his discharge from the Army and return to the States in 1946, Tony studied at the American Theater Wing on the GI Bill. He developed an approach to singing that combined the styles and phrasing of other musicians—such as Stan Getz's saxophone and Art Tatum's piano—helping him improvise as he interpreted each song.
In 1949, Pearl Bailey asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village; and Bob Hope was at that show. Hope decided to take Tony on the road with him, and suggested he simply call himself Tony Bennett. In his first big break in 1950, Bennett was signed to Columbia Records.
Bennett was a crooner, singing commercial pop tunes. His first big hit was "Because of You" reached #1 on the pop charts in 1951 and stayed there for 10 weeks, followed by Cold, Cold Heart," which helped introduce Hank Williams and country music to a national audience. Bennett's recording of "Blue Velvet" was also very popular. A third #1 hit came in 1953 with "Rags to Riches." Producers of the upcoming Broadway musical Kismet had Bennett record "Stranger in Paradise," and Bennett began a long practice of recording show tunes. "Stranger in Paradise" was also a #1 hit in the United Kingdom and started Bennett's career as an international artist.
Bennett placed eight songs in the Billboard Top 40 during the latter part of the 1950s, with "In the Middle of an Island" reaching the highest at #9 in 1957.
In 1955, Bennett released his first album. In his 1957 album The Beat of My Heart, Bennett used well-known jazz musicians Herbie Mann and Nat Adderley, Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Candido Camero, and Chico Hamilton. Bennett then worked with the Count Basie Orchestra, becoming the first male pop vocalist to sing with Basie's band. The albums Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958) and In Person! (1959) were both acclaimed.
In June 1962, Bennett staged a concert performance at Carnegie Hall, using musicians including Al Cohn, Kenny Burrell, and Candido, as well as the Ralph Sharon Trio. The concert featured 44 songs, including favorites like "I've Got the World on a String" and "The Best Is Yet To Come." It was a big success, and further cemented Bennett's reputation as a star both at home and abroad. Bennett began to appear on television, and in October 1962 he sang on the first night of the Johnny Carson The Tonight Show.
Also in 1962, Bennett released the song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The album of the same title was a top 5 hit and both the single and album achieved gold record status. The song won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, and over the years would become known as Bennett's signature song. In 2001, it was ranked 23rd on a list of the most historically significant Songs of the 20th Century.
Bennett's following album, I Wanna Be Around (1963) was also a top-5 success, with the title track, "The Good Life," reaching the top 20 of the pop singles chart and the top 10 of the Adult Contemporary chart.
Over the next couple of years Bennett had minor hits with several albums and singles based on show tunes – his last top-40 single was the #34 "If I Ruled the World" from Pickwick in 1965.
A firm believer in the American Civil Rights movement, Bennett participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. Years later he would refuse to perform in apartheid South Africa.
Bennett started his own record company, Improv, and cut songs that would later become favorites, such as "What is This Thing Called Love?" and made two well-regarded albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976).
But as the decade neared its end, Bennett had no recording contract, no manager, and was not performing any concerts outside of Las Vegas. In 1979, Bennett said, "It seems like people don't want to hear the music I make." It was then that his son Danny signed on as his father's manager. Danny Bennett felt strongly that younger audiences would respond to his music if only given a chance to see and hear it.
Danny began booking Bennett in colleges and small theaters and by 1986, Tony Bennett was re-signed to Columbia Records, this time with creative control, and released The Art of Excellence, his first album to reach the charts since 1972.
Danny also regularly booked his father on Late Night with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and various MTV programs. In 1993, Bennett played a series of benefit concerts organized by alternative rock radio stations around the country. The plan worked.
As Bennett was seen at MTV Video Music Awards shows side by side with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, with his "Steppin' Out With My Baby" video receiving MTV airplay, it was clear that “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock." At age 68, Tony Bennett had come all the way back.
Bennett continued to record and tour steadily, doing 100 to 200 shows a year. He won seven more Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance or Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammys, most recently in 2006 and has sold over 50 million records worldwide during his career.
Bennett donates so much time to charitable causes, he is sometimes nicknamed "Tony Benefit." He was co-founder of Exploring the Arts, a charitable organization dedicated to creating, promoting, and supporting arts education; and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public high school dedicated to teaching the performing arts, in 2001.
In August 2006, when Bennett turned eighty years old, his album Duets: An American Classic was released, reached his highest placement ever on the albums chart, and garnering two Grammy Awards. Bennett has received the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Humanitarian Award, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2006, the highest honors that the United States bestows upon jazz musicians.